You’ve been living in a tent in the Main Street encampment for a few months. Before you became homeless, you were still living at home with your family while enrolled full-time during your freshman year at Indiana University-South Bend. As you met other LGBTQIA+ people at college and learned more about what it means to be a transgender person, you felt empowered and began to express your gender identity more visibly. At first, your parents were embarrassed and thought it was “just a phase,” but after you told them you wanted to begin hormone therapy, they kicked you out.
When you first became homeless, you stayed with friends and lived off your savings from a high school summer job (that you originally planned to use to pay for college tuition) while trying to find full-time work so you could afford to rent your own place. You’ve lost track of how many job postings you’ve applied to—dozens and dozens of them—but you continually experienced discrimination because of your gender identity.
After two months of job searching with no luck, you felt defeated and went to the South Bend Housing Authority to sign up for an income-based apartment. The intake specialist told you it’d be at least 9 months before anything becomes available.
By late June, your money ran out, and you felt like you had worn out your welcome with all of your friends, so you joined the Main Street encampment. A kind volunteer from an organization called Michiana Five for the Homeless approached you and offered you a bright red tent to give you privacy and some protection from the weather. You accepted the tent and have called it home for now.
It’s now late November, and the temperatures are dropping below freezing every night. The city just announced that it’ll force the Main Street encampment to disband on December 1st.
Where will you go? Choose an option, below.
You spent the entire day walking from one long-term shelter to another only to discover that all of them were full.
Even if one of the shelters had space for you, there was confusion related to your gender. All of the shelters either only accept one gender or segregate women from men. You haven’t had your ID changed yet to indicate your authentic gender, so you’d be required to stay in a men’s rather than a women’s shelter. You are worried about being harassed and assaulted in an all-male group.
Also, you found out that you wouldn’t be able to bring all of your stuff. The idea of giving up some of your belongings is stressful, particularly your bicycle, which you’ve relied on to get to job interviews at places that aren’t on a bus line and to reach the more affordable grocery store across town.
In addition, you found out that most of the longer-term shelters are run by religious organizations, and you’re concerned that they’ll reject you as a transgender person. Indiana has laws in place, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that make it possible for religious organizations to refuse service to LGBTQIA+ individuals. You don’t want to have to conceal your authentic identity, nor do you want to experience religious condemnation of it by staff or volunteers.
This option isn’t viable right now—choose another one.
You’ve heard stories from other people experiencing homelessness that it isn’t safe at the weather amnesty shelter, as theft and harassment occur regularly. Occasionally, there are even more serious crimes like assault. However, you figure you should at least explore this option, so you walk several blocks to the weather amnesty shelter to learn more about it.
You find out that you can only bring one backpack of stuff with you, so you’re going to lose almost everything you own. Also, you’ll have to leave the shelter from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and take all of your belongings with you, so you’ll have to hang out around downtown South Bend every day for 12 hours with all of your stuff. You’re concerned about your safety on the streets because you know that as a transgender person, you’re a target for harassment and violence, but there aren't many free indoor places where you can go during the day. You used to spend a lot of time at the downtown public library, but it's closed for major renovations for the next year. You could instead ride your bike two miles to the University of Notre Dame library, where some other encampment residents plan to hang out, but with winter coming, snow will make biking unsafe, plus you don’t know if you'll be welcomed on a Catholic campus.
Also, you find out that men and women are segregated at the weather amnesty shelter, and you might have to present an ID to check in. You haven’t had your driver’s license changed yet to indicate your authentic gender—female rather than male—because changing your license requires a lot of paperwork and fees. So, staying in the weather amnesty shelter means that you’ll have to sleep in a roomful of men you don’t know. You’ll be at risk for harassment or assault.
Explore other options if you haven't already—maybe there's a better one.
You’ve heard from other Main Street encampment residents that a new tent encampment has formed in a wooded area farther from downtown. A few people that you trust are relocating there—they say that since you’ll be able to light fires at this new location, so the cold will be less of a problem. You decide to bundle up your belongings into your tent, sit it on top of an old shopping cart, and wheel it to the new encampment site.
It turns out the walk to the new site was almost 2 miles, and it’s about 1.5 miles from the nearest place that offers services to people experiencing homelessness, Broadway Christian Parish Church. Whenever you need a meal, shower, internet access, or a way to charge your phone, you’ll need to walk 3-4 miles.
Another challenge is that the new encampment site has neither running water nor bathroom facilities, and unlike the Main Street encampment, there aren't places nearby that provide both. It’s on private rather than city property, so City of South Bend staff don’t clean up the site. Waste just piles up. Also, there’s less police presence, so drug dealers come around more.
On the plus side, you’re able to band together with the people you already know and trust from your months at the Main Street encampment. You can protect one another from crime, not just more petty stuff like theft and harassment but violent crime like rape and assault. You decide to stay and set up your tent.
The person who owns the land the tent encampment sits on doesn’t object to all of you being there if you don’t cause trouble, so you and the other encampment residents work together to organize and police your community. Still, you live under the constant threat of being forced to move because nearby homeowners and businesses object to your presence.
In mid-January, the nighttime temperature drops well below zero. You need to find another place to stay, or you’ll freeze to death. Where do you go on dangerously cold nights?
Pick another option to escape the extreme cold.
You stayed with your friend Steve’s family for several weeks after you first left your parents’ house. Steve, who has been your close friend since middle school, lives with his mom, dad, and sister in a small three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Steve has always been supportive of you as you’ve transitioned; however, his parents have grown more chilly towards you over the past year. You worry that they’re hiding their disapproval just to be nice.
One day, you overhear Steve’s sister complaining about having to wait a long time to use the bathroom. You were already concerned that you were wearing out your welcome with Steve and his family because the two of you were starting to bicker. You were constantly together in close quarters; there was very little privacy in the house. Concerned that if you stick around much longer you’ll ruin your friendship with Steve, you start looking for someone else to stay with.
Fortunately, a friend at college who has her own apartment, Samantha, offers to let you sleep on her couch. At first, you’re happy for the change, but you soon discover that Samantha and her boyfriend smoke pot almost every night and sometimes do harder stuff, like cocaine. Then one night after Samantha falls asleep, her boyfriend hits on you. You tell Samantha because it seems like the right thing to do—why would she want to date such a creep?—but she becomes upset at hearing the news and tells you to leave.
None of your other friends or family members have been willing to let you stay with them for more than a few nights. Many have even ghosted you or, like your parents, rejected you outright. Staying with someone you know has turned out to be a very short-term option—one that will tide you over for a week at the most—and you'll be on the waitlist for income-based housing through the South Bend Housing Authority for at least 2 more months.
Where else can you stay?
Pick another option while you wait to hear from the South Bend Housing Authority.
A few people you know (but not really well) at the Main Street encampment are moving into an abandoned building just outside of downtown South Bend. They invite you to join them, so you decide to check it out.
You find that the building was probably a small shop or office; it appears to have been empty for many years because some of its windows are boarded up and graffiti is everywhere. On the plus side, the building is in a quiet, out-of-the-way area, so you don’t have to worry about your presence upsetting nearby homeowners or businesses. However, it has no running water, electricity, or heat. You’re concerned about staying warm on subzero winter nights in South Bend. You’ve heard about buildings burning down after squatters light a fire to stay warm.
Also, the building is far from basic resources. It’s about a mile from downtown, so you’ll have to spend a lot of time walking to different places to have a meal, shower, use the internet, and charge your phone. Plus, you’ll have to carry back as much bottled water with you as possible since you'll need it for both drinking and washing. You’ll need to stay clean so you’re presentable for job interviews.
A more alarming issue, however, is that while you’re at the building, you see some used needles in a corner, and the people staying there appear to be high. You realize that they probably opted to move into an abandoned building because all of the shelters around South Bend have a strict no-drugs policy. You’re worried about being a victim of crime or being arrested if you move into a building with drug users.
Don't want to move into the abandoned building? Choose another another option.